Oh all ye who pass by
Text: Origins & Analysis. “The Sacrifice,” by George Herbert (1593-1633), was first published in Herbert’s posthumous collection, The Temple (1633 | Fig. 1). Its length—63 stanzas of four lines—comes from its nature as a narrative poem, recounting the events of the arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, drawing from all four Gospel writers. This text is unique in that Christ himself is the narrator.
Fig. 1. George Herbert, The Temple (1633).
The concept of the hymn is borrowed from the words of the prophet in Lamentations 1:12—“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by? Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow, which was brought upon me, which the Lord inflicted on the day of his fierce anger.” Herbert has imparted these words on the suffering Christ, an idea potentially suggested by Matthew 27:39, “And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads.” The hymn is notable for its triple rhymes, a challenging feat for any poet. A detailed, line-by-line analysis of the text can be found in other sources, but some overarching themes can be relayed here:
1. Forms of anguish. The hymn shows how Christ’s sufferings were both physical and non-physical. In fact, his non-physical sufferings seem to have been greater. The New Testament arguably places a greater emphasis on his spiritual anguish rather than physical pain, as in the Garden of Gethsemane.
2. The abuse of gifts. In spite of the ways that Christ has given good things, his people have not only inflicted harm on the giver but also brought guilt on themselves. This can be seen, for example, in stanza 2, where Christ remarks that without his sustenance (bread), his tormenters would not have the energy to carry out their abuse; or in stanza 3, where Christ remarks that if it had not been for his deliverance of the Jews in Egypt, these people might still be slaves.
3. Extreme incongruence. In stanza 5, Christ finds it unthinkable that Judas valued a jar of ointment (John 12:2-6) and thirty pieces of silver (Matthew 26:14-16) above the life of his Savior. In stanza 9, we find the contradiction among the angry mob, “How with their lanterns they seek the Sun!” (John 18:3).
4. The deity of Christ. Jesus is depicted as the sustainer of life (stanza 2), who is equal to God (stanza 16), and lives eternally (stanza 25).
5. Inadvertent truth-telling. The hymn illustrates how Christ’s tormenters were unintentionally fulfilling prophecy or proclaiming a truth about Christ and his mission. A whole series of these statements happens in stanzas 40–45. For example, by giving Christ a scarlet robe, they illustrate the necessity of Christ’s blood for salvation. This concept is summarized at the end of stanza 45: “I, who am truth, turn into truth their deeds.”
Textual legacy. This hymn is typically not sung and has no associated tunes, a situation ripe for opportunity. Nonetheless, it has inspired others whose hymns have found greater currency among hymnals. This text may have been the impetus behind Charles Wesley’s hymn, “All ye that pass by, to Jesus draw nigh” (Hymns on the Great Festivals, 1746). This hymn also influenced a near-contemporary of Herbert’s, Samuel Crossman (1623-1683), whose hymn “My song is love unknown” contains several allusions to “The Sacrifice.”
by JIM ORRICK & CHRIS FENNER
for Hymnology Archive
7 August 2018
See especially Orrick (2011), pp. 6-16, and Slater (1995), pp. 395-403.
Jim Scott Orrick, A Year with George Herbert: A Guide to Fifty-two of His Best Loved Poems (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2011): Amazon
Ann Pasternak Slater, George Herbert: The Complete English Works (NY: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995): Amazon